Released Azerbaijani Opposition Figure Announces Return to Active Politics

By Liz Fuller

Three weeks after his release from jail after serving 4 ½ years of a seven year sentence handed down in March 2014 on charges widely condemned by human rights organizations and the international community as fabricated, Ilgar Mammadov, chairman of the as yet unregistered Azerbaijani opposition party Republican Alternative (ReAl), announced on 4 September his intention of resuming his political activities, and specifically of participating in future parliamentary and presidential elections.

Mammadov’s pre-term release on parole marked the culmination of years of sustained pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which in May 2014 concluded that Mammadov had been arrested, tried and sentenced in order to curtail his political activities, and called for his release. Together with Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party, Mammadov had travelled on 24 January 2013 to the provincial town of Ismailli, 200 kilometres west of Baku to ascertain the circumstances that had led to violent clashes the previous day between police and irate local residents. The two men spent just one hour in the town, departing before some 100-200 people again took to the streets to demand the resignation of local governor Natiq Alekperov. They were nonetheless arrested and charged with having organised or participated in mass disorders and with resorting to violence that endangered the life of police officers. Even though the prosecution failed to provide any evidence to substantiate those charges, both men were found guilty.

In November 2017, the ECHR further ordered the Azerbaijani authorities to pay Mammadov 10,000 euros ($11,560) in compensation. When Baku ignored that ruling, the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers took the unprecedented step of initiating a special legal proceeding to determine whether Azerbaijan’s failure to comply with successive ECHR rulings on the Mammadov case constituted an infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was the first time since that provision was introduced in 2011 that it had been resorted to.

In late June, Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court returned Mammadov’s case to a local Court of Appeal, a move that his supporters construed as intended to delay his release from jail at least for several months. Some commentators attributed the subsequent decision in mid-August to release him on parole as intended to improve the country’s image on the eve of a planned visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mammadov, 48, graduated in 1993 from Moscow’s Lomonosov University and then studied economics at the Central European University in Budapest. A firm advocate of Azerbaijan’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, he worked for a number of international organizations, including the International Crisis Group, and at Baku State University.

Mammadov began his political career in the late 1990s as a member of the centre-right Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), of which he soon became a deputy chairman. He quit AMIP in the wake of the November 2003 presidential ballot in which Ilham Aliyev was formally installed as the successor to his late father Heydar, a former republican KGB chairman and member of Leonid Brezhnev’s Politburo who had served as president for the previous decade. AMIP chairman Etibar Mammadov refused to acknowledge the legality of the official election results, according to which he placed fourth of eight candidates with just 2.53 percent of the vote. Ilgar Mammadov for his part argued that AMIP should accept the election results and structure its future political activities in accordance with the “new political realities,” Turan reported on 22 November 2003.

Mammadov ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections. In December 2008, he was one of the six co-founders of the ReAl movement, which was not initially intended as a mass political organisation, reported. At that time, ReAl’s primary objective was rather to make more widely known the advantages of a parliamentary, as opposed to a presidential system, and to promote a development strategy based on change and renewal for which, ReAl argued, fair competition is an essential precondition.

In line with those objectives, at its founding congress in the town of Ganja in January 2009, ReAl announced its opposition to the nation-wide referendum scheduled for 18 March 2009 on sweeping constitutional amendments of which the most important was lifting the prohibition on one person serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, thus paving the way for Ilham Aliyev to remain in power.

Mammadov incurred the wrath of Azerbaijan’s Milli Mejlis (parliament) in late 2012 by comparing it to the menageries of exotic beasts maintained by medieval shahs. He was quoted by the Russian news agency Regnum as arguing that that parliament deputies should be arrested following “revolutionary changes.”

Just days after Mammadov’s arrest in February 2013, ReAl formally nominated him as its candidate for the presidential election scheduled for 16 October that year. The Central Election Commission accepted Mammadov’s registration application in late August, but then declined to register him as a candidate on the grounds that 4,982 of the 41,247 signatures he presented in his support were invalid, thereby reducing the total to below the minimum 40,000 required. Mamedov’s formal appeal against that ruling was rejected.

In the wake of Ilham Aliyev’s reelection for a third presidential term, Mammadov was quoted as telling the Turkish newspaper Cumhurriyet that Aliyev should resign as he has forfeited the respect of the international community.

Mammadov had intended to convene a press conference immediately after his release last month, but all efforts by ReAl to hire a venue met with refusal, and eventually it was convened in the party’s office. Mammadov told journalists that he turned down several offers of release from prison in return for agreement to give up his political activities. He said he will campaign to have the verdict against him annulled, and that he has addressed a formal request to Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov to hold criminally accountable the 19 judges who illegally refused to comply with successive demands by the ECHR for his release.

With regard to the current political situation in Azerbaijan, Mammadov linked the relentless crackdown over the past five years on media freedom and manifestations of dissent to the authorities’ concern at the negative impact of the economic problems resulting from the fall in world oil prices, and the likelihood that the opposition would seek to exploit popular displeasure over the deteriorating economic situation. He argued that the opposition should continue to campaign for political and economic reform. At the same time, he condemned the opposition’s current tactics of convening protest meetings for which the authorities have granted formal permission. He said that approach only lends credence to official assertions that the country is a democracy.

In fact, ReAl has since its inception been wary of cooperating with established opposition parties, including the National Council of Democratic Forces (NSDS) established in the summer of 2013 with the aim of ensuring the upcoming presidential election was free and fair. In January 2014, Erkin Gadirli, who chairs ReAl’s leadership council, spoke disparagingly of what he termed Azerbaijan’s “old opposition,” presumably meaning the long-established Musavat and Azerbaijan Popular Front parties, which Gadirli said have only themselves to blame for the “miserable situation” they found themselves in. At a session that month to launch the process of transforming ReAl from a movement to a full-fledged political party, its executive secretary Natiq Cafarli explained that the future party does not intend to enter political blocs, but will consider “tactical cooperation” with other political forces in various constituencies during parliamentary elections.

ReAl did, however, join forces with NSDS chairman Djamal Gasanli in May of this year to defy a police ban on publicly commemorating the 28 May centenary of the proclamation in 1918 of the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Four ReAl members were subsequently detained for participating in that commemoration; two of them were sentenced respectively to 25 and 30 days’ administrative arrest.

Commenting on Mammadov’s declared intention to resume his political activities and run in both parliamentary and presidential elections, Togrul Cafarli, who is a member of the Azerbaijani National Public Committee for Euro-Integration, opined that Mammadov stands a chance of becoming leader of Azerbaijan’s opposition forces, but that to do so he would need “[to demonstrate] flexibility and unite representatives of various social and political groups.”

That scenario seems unlikely, however, for several reasons. First, as noted above, until now ReAl has shown no interest in aligning with other opposition parties. In addition, even though ReAl conducted an on-line constituent congress earlier this year to formalise its upgrade from a movement to a political party, it has not formally registered as such with the Justice Ministry, and according to Natiq Cafarli it has no intention of doing so. In that case, ReAl candidates could participate in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, due in November 2020 and April 2025 respectively, only as independent candidates.

Second, and by the same token, other opposition parties may be wary of ReAl’s maximalist program, in particular its stated intention of transforming Azerbaijan from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. Both the NSDS and the Public Chamber established in May 2012 confined their agenda to creating a level electoral playing field by securing greater opposition representation on electoral commissions at all levels, fair access to air-time on state-run media, and the release of political prisoners.

By contrast, ReAl’s program, as showcased at two key meetings in January and May 2014, envisages a five-year transition period from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, during which time the existing extensive presidential powers would be used to implement wide-ranging reforms, including de-centralisation, reducing the role of the state in all aspects of life, and the creation of a free and competitive economy.

The post of president would not be abolished, but at the end of the transition period the presidential powers would be drastically curtailed, and the next president would be elected by the parliament. The parliament in turn would be unicameral and consist of 200 law-makers elected under a mixed majoritarian-proportional system. The current 125 law-makers are all elected in single-mandate constituencies.

Further features of the five-year transition period would be lustration and a financial amnesty. As Gadirli explained, the owners of illegally acquired capital would have the option of legalising it, but in return would be barred from engaging in political activity for a period of 10 years.

According to Natiq Cafarli, although ReAl is committed to “liberal principles,” and intends to retain such social benefits as free health care and education, it rejects the classical stereotypes of left- and right-wing parties. ReAl also unequivocally advocates Azerbaijan’s accession to the World Trade Organisation, NATO, and the European Union. (For more details, see the party’s website).

Third, ReAl’s insistent focus on transforming Azerbaijan into a parliamentary republic strikes at the very heart of the Aliyev leadership. That perceived threat accounts for the systematic efforts to sideline and discredit both the party and its leader. In January 2017, for example, the office of Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General opened an investigation into allegations that ReAl had agreed to facilitate the funding by Iran of Azerbaijani opposition groups.

It is realistic to assume that while Mammadov may be permitted to resume his political activities for a period of several months, that freedom will be curtailed well before the November 2020 parliamentary ballot.

All this is not to say, however, that ReAl does not enjoy significant popular support. At the time of its on-line constituent congress in April, it boasted over 2,000 full members, but the number of potential supporters is in all likelihood much larger. According to Cafarli, in the November 2015 parliamentary elections ReAl’s candidates in the 10 electoral districts where they succeeded in registering garnered between 55-60 percent of the vote. The movement demanded the annulment of the official returns showing far lower figures, which it said were falsified.

In May 2018, 100 lawyers, journalists, politicians and civil rights activists signed a petition addressed to Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister Ramil Usubov deploring the arrest of four ReAl activists during the march commemorating the declaration of Azerbaijan’s independence in 1918.

In addition, Tom de Waal has highlighted two potential additions to ReAl’s support base. The first is members of the present Azerbaijani leadership (which is not homogenous), who sympathise with ReAl’s pro -Western, modernising agenda and are at the same time “sickened” by the corruption that pervades the entire system. The second (which partially overlaps with the first) is the large and influential community of Yeraz – Azerbaijanis whose families, like Mammadov’s, relocated to the Azerbaijan SSR from Armenia after World War II. Under what circumstances either or both groups might throw their weight behind Mammadov remains a matter for conjecture.

18 September 2018